Capsule Reviews of Current Movies 

Opening this week

Tropic Thunder (R) Robert Downey Jr. revives the "art" of blackface in this controversial satire about a band of war movie actors making a movie amid a real war. Also stars Ben Stiller and Jack Black.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (PG) Need we say more?

Mirrors (R) Kiefer Sutherland sees horrors in his reflection.

Critical Capsules

Brideshead Revisited (PG-13) Evelyn Waugh's novel is a story about Catholic grace as witnessed through the eyes of atheist Charles. But like so many British dramas, Brideshead derives no small measure of entertainment from its portrait of the British class hierarchy and Charles' aspirations to a higher class standing. Early in Brideshead Revisited, as Charles gawks at the oil paintings and statues and splendor of Brideshead, Sebastian chides him: "Don't be such a tourist!" And so he remains, a tourist in the strange country of class and religion and the other country of the Flyte family. Waugh was accused by some of elitism, of propping up the aristocratic world he longed to join. Director Julian Jarrold might occasionally be accused of the same. Wealth and privilege have rarely looked so luscious. By comparison, forays outside Mother England are imbued with the frightening aura of the Other. Where Brideshead Revisited flags is in how the thrills of its opening half stack up against the relatively diminished charms of its second part. As any British drama worth its salt will assert, repression always trumps consummation. And so the chemistry in the homosexual flirtation between Charles and Sebastian is more intense, funnier, and it tends to make Charles' later ardor for Julia almost anticlimactic. As the film wears on, its energy dissipates to some extent: How many fervid love affairs, after all, can one film support? —Felicia Feaster

The Dark Knight (PG-13) In director Christopher Nolan's (Memento) and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan Nolan's new, über-dark Batman story, the Joker personifies the allure of destruction and mayhem. And though The Dark Knight clucks its tongue and cops a moralistic attitude about the propensity for violence that lurks in all people, the Joker represents the film's have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude. The jaw-dropping explosions, car chases, and creative murders unleashed by the Joker prove the point: Destruction is a gas. But are parents really prepared for thugs impaled on pencils? Adorable towheaded children threatened with a gun to the head? Hand grenades thrust in the mouths of bank executives who try to foil a robbery by blasting the thieves into Swiss cheese? And a villain whose preferred tactic is a knife held menacingly at his victim's face? It seems almost cruel to take beloved child archetypes and turn them into projections for adult angst. Any kid who watches The Dark Knight will be ruined for anything but Peckinpah and Scorsese. Is it Gotham that's the darkest place on earth? Or is it the multiplex? —Felicia Feaster

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (PG-13) The first Hellboy movie was crazy mad insane, like you couldn't even figure out what the frak was going on, but it didn't matter. It was wildly entertaining in its geeked-out glory. And now Hellboy II: The Golden Army is just kinda there, like it has accepted its insanity and douses itself with a big handful of lithium every six hours, and is feeling much better now, honestly, and don't forget to buy the Hellboy Happy Meal on your way home. I'm still thinking, four years later, about how wacky Hellboy was, and yet I can barely remember Hellboy II, and I saw that mere days ago. I want to say that Hellboy II is pure dumb popcorn fun while you're watching it and instantly forgettable the moment the credits start to roll, but actually, I was forgetting it while I was still in the process of watching it. —MaryAnn Johanson

Journey to the Center of the Earth (PG) It's a stripped-down (there are essentially three characters) sort of post-modern (the movie acknowledges the existence of the book it's based on) variation on the Jules Verne novel with — depending on where you see it — the added novelty of 3-D. (Even if you see a 2-D print, you won't be able avoid noticing where the 3-D approach, especially when Brendan Fraser spits his toothpaste in your face.) While this latest big screen Journey clearly benefits from having Fraser as the male lead (in 1959, it was Pat Boone!) and a reasonably brief running time of 92 minutes, the decision to drop the earlier version's human villains and lost civlization reduces the dramatic tension to a bare minimum. It's strictly an effects show with one Tyrannosaurus Rex and some indeterminate toothy flying fish for menaces. The thrills are more of the theme-park ride nature, but they're solidly done and the whole thing's family-friendly. —Ken Hanke

Mamma Mia! (PG-13) Look, if you're keen on ABBA and actually like a lot — I mean a whole lot — of people singing and dancing (not necessarily very well), squealing with spurious delight, and wearing hearty fake smiles in an attempt to convince you that they're having a Great Time and you should be, too, this is your movie. Enjoy it and read no further. The movie (and its stage original) is basically an excuse to string about 20 ABBA songs together (most of which are scarcely connected to the proceedings) by means of a plot that makes no sense (how could a daughter conceived ca. 1968 be 20 years old?). A lot of very fine actors embarass themselves unduly in the process of bringing this to the screen. It's about one percent inspiration and 99 percent desperation. On the plus side, where else will you see Meryl Streep goosed by a goat? —Ken Hanke

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (PG-13) I'm a big big fan of 1999's The Mummy and of 2001's The Mummy Returns. This needs saying, because it's vital to understanding how deep my disappointment is with The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the third, and now, I hope, final installment in the franchise. I wasn't expecting a lot from this one, not with the departure of creator, writer, and director Stephen Sommers, and not with the departure of Rachel Weisz, though this was of slightly less concern. And I was expecting to have to justify and rationalize how entertainingly goofy I'd find it. I anticipated being overly generous in my estimation of it — and not caring. But even with bar set low and my unconditional love set high, I cannot freakin' believe how cruelly Tomb rips out my geeky little heart and stomps on it. All the magic, all the life, has been surgically excised from this charmless exercise in overblown action that is utterly clueless about how overblown-actiony it is. —MaryAnn Johanson

Pineapple Express (R) The conceit of a couple of stoners with a real reason to be paranoid is pretty sweet. At its best Pineapple Express latches on to its protagonists' misguided responses to well-founded fears. The most priceless segment finds Dale (Seth Rogen) and his dealer Saul (James Franco) hiding out in the woods, their reactions swinging between Blair Witch-level panicked freakouts and spending an inordinate amount of time visiting with a caterpillar. These situations are paired with Rogen and fellow screenwriter Evan Goldberg's gift for truly demented bon mots — like Saul describing the aroma of his best product as being "like God's vagina" — and a delightfully goofy performance by Danny McBride as Saul's supplier. It ain't Shakespeare, but it's funny. —Scott Renshaw

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (PG) Another week, another sequel, this time a follow-up to 2005's The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. And though the new film is, like the first one, based on Ann Brashares' popular series of young adult novels, it arrives in a movie-going season filled with sequels to comic book movies, sequels to long standing franchises, sequels to movies based on now dead TV series and more sequels to comic book movies — and it's easily the most unlikely sequel of the lot. Unfortunately, it doesn't have much else going for it. It's basically The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Returns, this time dealing with growing-up and growing apart, all of which is filtered through the lens of after-school special melodrama. While pleasant enough, the movie suffers from mismanaging too many subplots and having no clue what ultimately needs to be done with them. OK for fans, but newcomers will find little of interest. —Justin Souther

Step Brothers (R) Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) and Dale Doback (John C. Reilly) — the titular pair in Step Brothers — are 40-year-old losers, unemployed and still living at home with their respective single parents (Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins) when those parents meet and decide to get married. There is nothing funnier to them than naughty words as punch lines. Sometimes, as in the writing/directing works of Judd Apatow (a producer here), low humor can be ridiculously entertaining. But when it works, it's because there's something else going on besides the impulse to offend. There's a difference between using your f-bombs as seasoning and offering them up as the meal itself. And that's what Step Brothers turns into — a three-course banquet of fuck soup, fucking roast beef, and motherfucker sorbet. —Scott Renshaw

Swing Vote (PG-13) Like a landed fish, Swing Vote not only arrives with a resounding splat, it flops around on the dock for so long that you're tempted to put it out of its misery. The toothlessness of this purported political satire is such that it would have a hard time chewing its way through a bowl of Cream of Wheat. The movie's so afraid of offending either liberals or conservatives that it winds up being not much of anything. Kevin Costner holds the screen as the Boobus Americanus on whose vote a presidential election improbably hinges, but it's a hollow victory for anything other than his charisma. A few moments — the anti-abortion commercial, for instance — shine, but too few to make this worth sitting through to get a lemon of an outcome and a ninth grade civics lecture. —Ken Hanke

X-Files: I Want to Believe (PG-13) What X-Files creator Chris Carter wants to believe is that there's still an audience for his old TV show — and that that audience will turn out for this big screen attempt at resuscitation. The evidence of its opening weekend says no, and not without reason. The chemistry between the show's stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, is still there, but it's about the only thing holding the film together. The attempt to make the film work for both fans and newcomers isn't apt to satisfy either, while the effort to make the movie "say something" feels grafted on and ultimately rather dull. Despite a tabloidesque plot involving illegal surgery, black market organ transplants, a psychic pedophile, and even a two-headed dog, it's simply not exciting. It takes a special gift to make a two-headed dog boring, but Carter seems to have that gift. —Ken Hanke


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